Attorneys representing an IDF soldier convicted of shooting an unarmed Palestinian attacker declared Wednesday that a meeting during which army officials were said to have tried to convince the soldier’s father to drop plans for an appeal in return for a lighter sentence, appeared to be a criminal offense.
The Jaffa Military Court last week convicted Sgt. Elor Azaria, 19, of manslaughter in the fatal shooting last March of stabber Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the West Bank city of Hebron. Azaria’s sentencing is scheduled for January 15.
In a letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, attorneys Eyal Besserglick and Ilan Katz denounced the meeting held at an IDF base on Monday and reported on the next day by Channel 2 news, saying it was “crossing a red line.”
Azaria’s father, Charlie, reportedly sat down with Col. Guy Hazut, the commander of the Kfir Brigade, in which his son serves.
According to the report, the meeting, at which the lawyers weren’t present, was intended to reduce the animosity between the army and the Azaria family, and to explore ways to contain the public fallout from the trial, which has bitterly divided the country. The father was reportedly urged to drop a planned appeal of Azaria’s conviction and fire his attorneys, steps he was told would be taken into consideration in the future when considering reduced punishment or a possible pardon for Azaria.
“We discovered to our amazement that improper contacts were made by senior IDF persons… to the father of our client in order to cause him to replace his attorney and likewise to refrain from a future appeal in this case, while also making various assurances — things that could allegedly be a criminal offense,” the letter read.
The attorneys claimed that Hazut had also offered Charlie Azaria the opportunity to meet with senior IDF officials, including the head of the IDF Military Prosecution, “in order to close with them a plea bargain before the negotiations for punishment.”
The availability of the senior figures was, the attorneys charged, proof that they supported the meeting.
On Wednesday morning the IDF issued a statement insisting that the meeting was not about Azaria’s sentencing. Rather, it said, “the purpose of the meeting was to see if the the family needed any assistance.”
“The IDF wants to make clear that it will not detail the content of the meeting that took place between the family of Sgt. Elor Azaria and his commander, but denies the incorrect report on Channel 2 that suggested an offer was made to lighten the punishment, or concerning the appeal, or any other involvement in the legal process,” the army said. “The IDF spokesperson would like to stress that Sgt. Elor Azaria is entitled to a clean legal process that is free of pressures, and in which he is dealt with by his commanders in a regular manner like any other IDF soldier.”
In response, Azaria’s attorneys said the denial was “a lie,” Channel 2 reported.
By law, there are two ways Azaria could obtain a pardon. All convicts, including soldiers, can appeal to the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, for a pardon. Soldiers can also turn to the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, who has the legal power to issue pardons for active-duty personnel.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday alluded to efforts aimed at resolving the divisive issue, writing on his Facebook page that those calling for an immediate pardon and protesting the conviction should keep quiet, as they were doing more harm to Azaria than good.
“We all know that on one side [of this case] there’s a decorated soldier and on the other there’s a terrorist who came to kill Jews,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
“We’re doing everything to safeguard both the ethics of the IDF and the soldier Azaria. Anything else only hurts,” he said.
Since the verdict was announced, Liberman, who voiced support for Azaria before entering the Defense Ministry last year, has called on Israelis to respect the court’s decision and asked the soldier’s attorneys to agree to a deal in which they forgo filing an appeal in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Many right-wing politicians, accompanied by former Labor leader MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union), have called for a presidential pardon for Azaria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said he backs a pardon.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.